Like many Muscovites, I am spending this summer in Dhaka. In 2022, there are many more people vacationing in our village than in previous years, which is located near the former Obiralovka interchange, where Leo Tolstoy threw Anna Karenina under a train (women leave bouquets on the memorial plaque at the station , thinking that Anna was a real victim of unrequited love and not a fictional character). One reason there are more people is the growth of the Internet. Many continue to work remotely, which they started doing during the pandemic. After all, almost everyone who usually vacations abroad is spending the summer of 2022 in Russia because of international sanctions.
The “special operation” in Ukraine that began on February 24 has fundamentally changed the lives of many Russians, especially members of the middle class, intellectuals and people who were politically active.
As Western sanctions were imposed against Russia, almost all major international companies and their subsidiaries left the country, leaving thousands of specialists out of work. Russian scholars, doctors, musicians and athletes are expelled from international associations and universities and barred from concerts and competitions, while at the same time Russian colleges and educational institutions have ended international cooperation and student exchange programs. An Iron Curtain suddenly fell from both sides. New laws and regulations made political debate in public almost impossible, and almost all independent media were closed or decided to close.
The list of “foreign agents” is regularly updated with new names of journalists and human rights activists—a process aided by complaints from “vigilant citizens,” a long-forgotten Soviet practice. According to data from human rights organizations, by mid-summer nearly 200 online and offline media outlets had been blocked, and more than 150 criminal cases and more than 200 administrative cases had been brought under the new fake news and discredit laws. army. . Dozens of rights activists, journalists and IT experts have fled the country, finding themselves in a difficult, even untenable, situation: Russian banks are under sanctions and cannot use their credit cards or transfer money from Russia. At the same time, people in small towns or poor regions, people who work for the state, people who have never been abroad or are interested in politics have not seen serious changes. Food prices have gone up, but not by much. Poor families and pensioners received small (but noticeable to them) government subsidies and other benefits. It must be said that throughout Russia, the most diverse sources of information, including blocked foreign resources, are available by simply obtaining a VPN (owning a virtual private network is free and not criminal – what is punished is the dissemination of critical information) . But not everyone is interested in alternative views.
In the spring, analysts Natalya Zabarevich and Yevgeny Gonmakher predicted that the “special operation” and sanctions would affect the middle class, the educated and pro-Western classes the most. The poor would remain poor and the rich and officials would continue in their privileged position. Political figure, founder of the Yabloko Party, Grigory Yavlinsky has warned of the dangers of the growing wealth gap. It is clear today that class differences are very important. Three layers of society live in different worlds, experiencing events in their own way.
Our dacha community has representatives of all three classes. My business neighbor is building a second “cottage” on his lot. Before 2014, it was in oil products, but after the imposition of anti-Russian sanctions, it switched to import substitution and the production of “Russian Parmesan”. His wife continues to buy the real Italian cheese in Europe. His children live in Spain and he recently visited them. He believes that Russia had no choice but to start the “operation” in Ukraine.
It is the only building in the community. The prices of construction materials, many of which are imported, have tripled. Prices for cars, gadgets and appliances have skyrocketed.
Groceries, pharmaceuticals and the most basic items have not increased in price much. Store shelves are as stocked as before. The shortages predicted in the spring have not appeared. Some brands closed their boutiques, but rather fast fashion cosmetics and clothes appeared in other stores — at a much higher price. However, demand remains high and people are still spending. Restaurants in and around Moscow are full and you can’t get in without a reservation. McDonald’s and Starbucks may have left Russia, but they have been replaced by Russian cafes with other names and similar products. Russians have become avid consumers in recent years, and the authorities understand it. Our community delivery services are running smoothly.
The businessman’s wife has delivered cosmetics and other mystery packages, while his handyman, a former electrician from a neighboring village, takes beer and nationalist literature. He strongly supports the “special operation” in Ukraine and sometimes invites the other drinkers at the local bar to “go fight the Nazis”. His wife, a veterinarian, leader of the local animal rights movement, and a regular participant in protests in recent years, was recently fined for anti-war theft. Spouses don’t discuss politics. They spend all their money on the training of their teenage son—he is the Russian karate champion and hopes that soon the sanctions will be lifted and he will be able to participate in the next Olympics. Their eldest son, a computer expert, moved to Georgia at the start of the military operation.
My longtime friends at the dacha—writers, doctors, teachers, engineers—and our long evening conversations this summer remind me of those held by the Soviet intelligentsia, our parents, during the years of Brezhnev’s “stagnation.” We discuss the latest news and statements on the Internet, and every evening we talk about what happened to our country, how we lost what we fought for in August 1991 and the next 30 years, and how to live now. On how we should conclude the talks of 30 years ago, which clearly did not value the Soviet past. About how it’s not too late to do it. What can each of us do—in the university, in business, in school—to resist the return of totalitarianism. After all, history depends not only on global trends, but on real people. Perestroika was not done by Gorbachev and Reagan alone, but by the millions of Soviets who believed in change and inspired Gorbachev. Just like the Americans who thought the Cold War had to end. This experience of internal resistance to nascent totalitarianism is extremely important today. Like the three hundred years of resistance of Russian intellectuals, journalists and writers to censorship and arbitrariness. It gives strength. The experience of resisting bans, censorship and state pressure returns to Russian practice and will surely lead to the victory of common sense. This is what my friends at the dacha say, and many other people in Moscow and other Russian cities. This gives us hope.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis